Can Rahul Gandhi Turn US Yatra Into A Tangible Political Gain?

Gandhi is mounting a concerted campaign abroad to stress his party has the answers.

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Opinion
5 min read
Rahul Gandhi is mounting a concerted campaign abroad to stress his party has the answers.
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His great grandfather and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru came to the United States in 1949 on a three-week “voyage of discovery of the mind and heart of America” and to place before Americans the mind and heart of India.

Rahul Gandhi’s two-week tour has a somewhat different aim – he is being projected as a future leader who alone can save India’s mind and heart from majoritarian philosophies and assorted maladies. Gandhi and other senior Congress Party leaders are mounting a concerted campaign abroad to stress their party has the answers.

Gandhi has been engaging a wide spectrum of US business and thought leaders to convey the Congress Party’s sense of deep unease with the direction India appears to be taking under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

‘Where is India’s Vision?’

At the same time, he was unfailingly polite about his disagreements with the government, even praising some of the programmes such as Make in India and Swachch Bharat, but firm in his contention that Modi’s vision does not include all Indians.

Gandhi was also clear in marking difference in how the Congress looks at India’s place in the world in relation to the US, Russia and China.

He told Princeton University students on Tuesday that while he values relations with the US, his party would prefer a “balance.”

“China is entering spaces with its One Belt One Road. It is moving with tremendous power. It has a vision of the world and from their perspective it’s a powerful vision. Does India have a vision?” he asked.

The current climate of intolerance in India, he said, was extremely disturbing and could rip India’s fragile social fabric apart. It would be nothing short of a national security disaster if India’s 200 million Muslims grow to feel completely alienated from their motherland.

He has talked about the lynchings, cow vigilantism and targeted killings of liberals, including journalists in his speeches.

Things can “go dangerously wrong,” he told a college audience if India moves away from the principle of “ahimsa.” “What can destroy our momentum is the opposite energy, of hate, anger and the politics of polarisation.”

The Unemployment Pitch

Broadly speaking, Gandhi made a positive impression, tapping into a growing sense of concern among India watchers about the social agenda of the BJP-RSS conglomerate. Americans talk about the attacks on dalits, Christians and Muslims in hushed tones, never out loud given their stakes in the bilateral relationship.

But then it takes little to flip.

Rahul Gandhi addresses students at Princeton University
Rahul Gandhi addresses students at Princeton University
(Photo: Twitter/@OfficeofRG)

Gandhi’s second major point is India’s huge unemployment problem. At least 30,000 young people are joining the job market every day but the rate of job creation is nowhere remotely close to the target. This too, hits the target in the US even if for slightly different reasons – many believed Modi would be a radical reformer, open the Indian economy much more than he has. They wanted to sell more to India than they have been able to – from dairy products to pharmaceutical drugs – but Modi’s policies have left them cold.

The Indian economy is showing slower growth that many blame on Modi’s demonization gambit. Gandhi called it a “completely self-inflicted wound.” Most economists have criticized the move on record.

Sam Pitroda, head of the Congress Party’s overseas department, said the benefits of low oil prices have been wasted by the Modi government while Manmohan Singh delivered 8 percent growth despite higher oil prices.

Apparently, the first question at many of Gandhi’s meetings was about the climate of “intolerance” in India. Many Indian-Americans also expressed a strong desire to support him, according to organisers.

Gandhi also made the important point that India can’t follow the Chinese model of growth. What India needs is a new model of development, he said, one that focuses on small and medium-sized companies and not on the 100 top companies for whom laws are written.

An Honest, Impressive Rahul

Pitroda, who accompanied Gandhi to all his meetings, said the audiences have found him impressive, honest and earnest in his answers. Even when he fumbles – as Gandhi clearly did while answering a question on dynastic politics – it shows his frailty as a real person. And Gandhi himself admitted in his Berkeley speech that Modi was a better communicator than he is.

What was clear to many in his audience was that Gandhi is not what the social media has made him out to be – a reluctant politician, an awkward politician, an ineffectual politician.

As he said in his Berkeley speech a “thousand guys on their computers” have created a negative image, which refuses to go away. He called it the “BJP machine” and said, “basically the operation is run by the gentleman who is running the country.”

Gandhi made a round of major think tanks in Washington, starting with the Centre for American Progress –– a Democratic Party stronghold, going to the conservative Heritage Foundation with several former US officials in attendance and stopping over at the US-India Business Council to discuss development. He met several staff aides on Capitol Hill to talk about bilateral relations and how his party supports a strong India-US relationship.

But as the leader of India’s opposition, he did not get the kind of high-level attention from the White House or the State Department that out-of-power Americans get when they travel to New Delhi.

The only Trump Administration official to call on him was Lisa Curtis, senior director for South Asia at the White House.

Did the US Embassy not know he was travelling to Washington or did they not think it important to help in arranging meetings is anyone’s guess. Milind Deora, one of the organisers of the trip, said the idea was just to introduce Gandhi to a wider audience in the US.

It is unclear how effective Gandhi’s American journey would be in recasting him as a sensitive and able politician but in his speeches he did come across as earnest, even thoughtful with a few missteps along the way. But does he have enough fire in his belly to snatch the “liberal” space is yet to be determined.

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. The views expressed in this article are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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